Eric Bogosian breaks down "Uncut Gems" and Adam Sandler's "amazing" performance

Salon talks to the iconic actor about "Succession," monologues and building his career around character roles

Published December 18, 2019 5:30PM (EST)

Eric Bogosian ("Salon Talks")
Eric Bogosian ("Salon Talks")

Eric Bogosian, the iconic actor, playwright and writer known for writing and starring in stage-to-film adaptations like "Talk Radio" (directed by Oliver Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay) as well as his work on prestige cable dramas like HBO's breakout hit "Succession," sat down with me in Salon's studio last week to discuss his new project: a grainy, 35-mm film shot in exquisite detail by film industry darlings the Safdie brothers. It's called "Uncut Gems," and it opens Christmas Day.

In "Uncut Gems," the actor — in person both affable and warm — hones the chilling glare he's known for to perfection as Arno, to whom the film's protagonist Howard (Adam Sandler, in an Oscar-buzzing dramatic role) owes a large sum of money. Set in New York's diamond district, "Uncut Gems" is a noisy, tense dramedy already getting rave reviews from critics.

Bogosian, whose range has long been celebrated by film and theater lovers, is a rare actor who can do a tremendous amount with very few lines. He described to me his approach to acting and how he looks at make a big impact with little dialogue. In fact, while working on a Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" more than 20 years ago, Bogosian had an epiphany: He realized that his five lines could be studied and presented in so many different ways. In that moment, Bogosian explains, he learned that working intensely through a few lines could make him a better, more impactful actor. "Uncut Gems" is no exception. Bogosian delivers a multi-layered performance that made me see Sandler's character differently as the film progressed.

To hear more about that and his role in HBO's "Succession," watch my "Salon Talks" interview with  Eric Bogosian, or read an edited transcript below, trimmed slightly for length and clarity.

"Uncut Gems" is a very stressful and noisy film. That is all intentional, of course, as we know from the filmmakers, the Safdie brothers. In terms of the cast, Adam Sandler's character is desperately unlikeable, unless you understand him, but also so good. Tell us about the story and what made you want to make this film.

The story itself is that Adam Sandler plays this guy, Howard, who works in the jewelry district selling bling to sports stars and rappers and so forth. Really garish, ugly stuff, if you've seen any of the coverage. There's a Furby that's all covered with gold and diamonds and everything. They had it made custom for this movie. There's a lot of underlying stuff. They took a long time to make this movie and it's very dense with detail. I've seen it five times now and I see new things every time I see it. The tense parts are very tense. The funny parts are very funny. The acting parts, and I'm talking about watching the whole cast, but watching Adam in particular. I know him like everybody does, as a comedic actor, and then his sort of stints in a couple of dramatic movies. But this is one where he carries the whole movie all the way through and some of the beats are amazing in what he's doing as an actor. I'm speaking as an actor myself. I'd watch him switch gears. I'd watch him focus.

There's one point in the movie where he has to show up at an auction house to auction this stone. I went completely off the story here. All of a sudden, he's sort of a different guy in that moment. He's now got a better suit on. He doesn't have this sort of oilier quality that he's been grooming. At any rate, the story is that he is a terrible gambler and he owes a lot of people money, and one of the people he owes money to is me. My character, Arno.

It's a spoiler to tell you exactly who Arno is in the movie, so I don't want to give that away. It's a good beat, but essentially, I'm the bad guy chasing him for the money and I have henchmen who are my muscle. It's super fun. The reason I did the movie, though, was actually because of the Safdie brothers' earlier movie, "Good Time," which blew me away. This is an experience I have every now and then. It happened with "Succession" as well, where I look at the work of what these people are doing and I say, "I have to be part of this. I want to work with these people because they're doing really interesting stuff."

What I didn't know was that Adam was going to come in and deliver this amazing performance —one which I have to say, because there's been a lot of talk about Oscar nominations and so forth, I am absolutely certain this man did not come into this job thinking "I'm going to get an Oscar nomination from this." Instead, he came in and he just completely focused on this role and then, unlike a lot of method actors who kind of stay in that place all the time, he was completely at ease and personable whenever we weren't doing these insanely intense takes. I'm involved in some of the more intense and very physical scenes with him, and he was just like the most chill guy.

Every once in a while, he knew he had to be quiet and he would go off and get focused before we were going to shoot. But generally, he's so generous on set. So nice to everybody. It was a real pleasure. And the Safdies are these sort of incredibly facile directors. They know exactly everything they want to do, and also a little anarchic, so you're kind of off-balance all the time when you're shooting with them.

Let's talk a little bit more about Josh and Benny Safdie. What is it like to work with these guys who spent ten years making this film? I read that Benny would hold the boom on their own smaller-budget movies.

He still does. Benny is still holding the boom, even when you don't need a boom, there's a boom guy and it's Benny. That does a weird thing, which puts him right in the scene with you. When you say boom, it's the guy holding the mic, which isn't even done that much anymore. So when you're in the scene, he's with you. Nowadays, with what's called video village, the director can be a mile away and sometimes there's a vibe going on set that the director may not be picking up on, whereas Benny is always right in the thick of things.

The two of them are always chewing on what's going on. I think once or twice when we were shooting, you would have one guy come up and say, "On the next one, give it a little, make it a little harder, you know?" So you've got Josh coming up saying, "On the next one, make it a little harder," and then Benny's coming up and going, "On the next one, make it a little softer." And you have to go, "Listen, guys, can we just... Which one? What do you want here?" There's that. But that's what keeps everything up in the air when they're shooting.

I've had the good fortune to work with some of the best directors who've ever directed in history. The first thing I ever did, really, was with Robert Altman. There's a lot of Robert Altman in the kind of shooting that they do. Altman was somebody who didn't put marks on the floor. He wired everybody and he just said, "go for it." And the "go for it" quality gives you a little more energized thing, which you get a lot of in this movie. You feel like you're kind of a fly on the wall in the middle of a lot of craziness.

They know film and they love film. I'm not really that kind of guy, actually. I'm a theater guy, but people like Richard Linklater or Robert Altman or Oliver Stone, these guys who I've worked with, are all in love with movies. And these guys are in love with movies. You see that whole deep understanding of what you can do with film, including stuff I don't even understand that they did in this movie. Something having to do with the way it was shot. I don't know what they're even talking about. Darius [Khondji] is this amazing DP. I just love working with him. I love the way the thing looks, but I don't actually know what he's doing.

It's not, as the Jews would say, ungapatchka. Do you know that word?

I'm an honorary Jew. I don't know any Yiddish.

It means, like, messy, you know, all over the place. This was shot on 35 millimeter film and has lots of jump cuts, zooms and lurid images. There's a lot of richness and graininess in "Uncut Gems." The fluorescent lights in Sandler's character's office are harsh. During the club scene, you get to feel how dark it really is. There's a whole debate in Hollywood over film versus digital. Do you have a preference? 

There's a big plus with digital in that you can shoot with almost no light, and that has become very exciting for a lot of people. It also speeds your setups. The resetting takes up a lot of time on a classic movie set, where you have to really light the subject. But the thing I like about 35 millimeter, besides the look, which I think it is a richer look, is I think it's a more dimensional look. Every take is kind of precious. Whereas when you work with digital, there's this sense that it all can be sort of thrown away and you can just keep going all day long. And some actors get really lazy doing it that way. As opposed to, when you hear "action," we're about to grab something that is special and we're going to do it as many times as we can. Like, five times, let's say. And then we're going to move on to the next thing. I like that. I like the preciousness of film.

Toward the end of the movie, there's this big fight that I have with Keith [Williams Richards] and the camera is right in there with us and we're just moving around in this sort of cluster mania through that whole scene. I was afraid we were going to break the camera at one point. Like, it was right there on top of us.

In watching you play Arno, you don't have a lot of dialogue, but you're having to convey a tremendous amount about your inner life and the large sum of money that Howard owes you. You're getting very stressed out, so you hire these ruthless henchmen, and yet you're related to Howard and so there's that dichotomy. You can tell that Arno's a little divided, you know?

That did seal the deal for me in terms of who this guy is. I mean, you've seen this guy before and you've seen this kind of situation before in movies. There's at least four other movies where some gambler owes a lot of money and bad guys are chasing him around and he only has so much time to get the money back or whatever the deal is. So, I got that whole initial beat and then when it kept getting more complex as the movie went along, all the way to the end, where I actually was being challenged as an actor to convey some of that, like, "Wait a minute, have we gone too far here?" kind of thing. It was pretty easy because the men who are my henchmen in those scenes are genuinely… I mean, they're sweetie pies, but they're also genuinely physical, scary guys and it's not hard to react when they're doing something very physical because they're often really doing it.

When we were on our very first day and we get in the SUV and we're chasing Adam around and I'm like, "Wow, Adam's doing his own... Is Adam really running in the dark on grass with leather shoes on? What is he doing? What if he breaks his ankle while we're shooting the first day?" We get him back into the car and he's getting beaten up ruthlessly behind me. And I realized that they were kind of really beating him up and I was saying to them, you know, "Guys, you can't kill Adam before we're done shooting!" They're really into the fact that they were in a movie, but they didn't even really know what that meant. Like, they didn't know how lines work or learning lines, or any of those things. They just knew that in this particular scene, kill Adam. And they're really brutalizing him behind me in that scene. I actually got angry the very first day. Everybody was laughing about it, but I'm yelling at these guys who could, with their little finger, just flick me and knock me out. They were afraid of me once I started yelling at them. They started behaving themselves more, but then it got chaotic again.

Benny and Josh are known for hiring regular people alongside real actors to embody roles so that they have a gravitas that somebody else just playing it might not get, right? So these guys really are tough guys.

Keith, who's kind of the key guy and really is key all the way through to the end of the movie, I've watched him very carefully and his acting is just terrific.

Another surprising breakout in "Uncut Gems" is retired basketball player Kevin Garnett. Kevin can act! KG, as they call him in the film, becomes obsessed with this black opal that's a centerpiece of the story. It becomes  a talisman for him and it made me think about the random things that people have as good luck charms. Did you ever have one, like some kind of a thing for acting or in life?

Well, like all actors, I'm superstitious. I think there's something working out there that's beyond my control. But, I mean, my family, because we're Armenian and we're from the Middle East, well not really from the Middle East, but from Turkey. The evil eye will be on the wall. Every car has to have a little blue bead that you might see. Every car had to have that and be blessed and all. I was brought up good Christian boy, altar boy and all that stuff, so I mean, I still have all of that.

HBO's "Succession" is another project that's really taken off for you this year. You play a senator who's running for president. He's a progressive and an outsider. How did you approach the process of playing a presidential candidate in these times?

It was understood, I think, from the get-go on "Succession" that my character was something like a Bernie Sanders kind of guy. That's the kind of guy I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be a progressive, sort of, but ultimately you find out he's more different than Bernie. I don't like to play imitating people. I don't want to try and look and study him or anything like that. I watched him a little bit. I prepped a little bit by just looking at his style. The thing that got me about him the most is that he always fills everything with this sense of indignation that comes, wells up from his gut, which is kind of interesting about politicians. Because no matter what side of the fence they're on, they're all very indignant and angry about everything.

But for me as an actor, I just work with the script and the scenes and the writing on "Succession" is amazing. Jesse Armstrong is just a wonderful writer. That was what drew me into that project. And then the company is extraordinary and Sarah Snook, who I have most of my scenes with, is just a wonderful scene partner.

So I just build it. You know, I always figure that the audience is going to put the big picture together. All I have to do is provide this scene as fully as I can, and it's all going to be there in the lines, if it's a good script. And so I let the lines tell me what to do. As a result, my character... one minute, he's making a speech and he's very forthright and honest and a good guy, and then two minutes later, he's getting into a car and he's as petty as anybody could be and he's kind of sloughing off somebody who's well wishing him and he's getting in the car, but already his mind is elsewhere. But that's all in the lines. So I just play those beats the way that they write them.

Do you have a process for developing these types of characters where you have to fill in blanks about the back story?

For me, the key is just doing a huge amount of work on these few lines that I'm providing. I mean, I think that what I'm doing and what other character actors are doing is really key. One of my real heroes is Harris Yulin. And Harris Yulin in "Scarface" has this scene at the very end where Pacino is going to kill him and he says, "You can't kill a cop." And Pacino says, "Whoever said you was one?'" And he's got, like, seven lines in the movie and they're indelible to me.

This just came to me the other day, but if you follow baseball at all, a pitcher on the pitcher's mound, when he's a really effective pitcher, it's actually in the legs in a big way. And those legs are attached to a thing called a rubber that's on the mound that your foot must be on in order to really whip that ball in. And I see the work that myself and friends of mine do, who perhaps the audience doesn't know what our names are, but we're the rubber. Without that very strong foundation for the lead, this is what they push off of. And I feel like I have a really important job to do that.

But the way I do it is to spend a lot of time on this stuff that I have to do, the lines that I have to do. And that came to me working on a movie with Woody Allen many, many years ago called "Deconstructing Harry," in which I was sort of stuck in my dressing room for five hours that day. And I had four lines, but because it was Woody Allen, I was kind of scared. And I just thought, "I'm going to spend all day on these lines." And over time, I was like, wow, there's so much more here than I realized. You know, it's not always what you think it is right away. You learn over time, or at least I needed to do that work.

It gives you a greater appreciation for all these other rubber people in your life, many of whom you bring in for 100 (Monologues), which I understand is still going strong. We talked a little bit about your project last time you came on "Salon Talks," can you tell folks briefly what it is?

100 (Monologues) began because I was known for doing these monologue shows between 1980 and 2000. So it's like ancient history now. And because I go to New York restaurants and because I'm waited on by waiters all the time and after the 20th waiter had told me that he or she had done my monologues in college when they were studying to be an actor, I realized that there were all these people doing these monologues in school.

And then me and my pals, other actors, character actors, started kind of fooling around. It's like, "Well, what would it be like if you did this?" And now we've got You go online and it's free and you can see a lot of these people who are people's favorite actors—Sam Rockwell's on there and Ethan Hawke and people you may not know their names. So these guys are on there doing the monologues. They studied them, we shot them and they're fully produced. And I guess in my mind, it's an opportunity for young actors to say, ok you want to go do this monologue in college? Fine. Here's a pro doing it. This is what it's like when Peter Dinklage does that monologue. And you get to see it.

So we've got about 75 of them up now. We're going to be posting another two in the next couple of months. We get back to it every now and then, when my crew isn't too busy and we go and shoot. I've got a list of actors who want to do it, but a lot of them are character actors who you probably don't know their name, but I really admire them and I've seen them do meticulous work over the years. Like, Glenn Fleshler, who's on "Billions," he plays the consigliere of Axe Capital. Glenn is an amazing actor and here's an opportunity for him to really knock it out of the park, and he does. It's an incredible monologue.

At some point you start to understand it's a job, although there's all kinds of ego stroking and everything. For me, I started out as a lead actor in a big movie and then over time, it was like, well, what do I really want to be doing here? And what I like to do is pretend to be other people. I was a kid who had a talent for this and over the years, I've encountered real pros who bring a whole methodology to it and I look at what they're doing and I'm like, "Oh, if I did that, maybe it would be a little bit better." And now I've been really lucky these last few years to be around such incredibly talented companies and great writers. For me, it's what it's all about.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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